Thunderbirds arrive in Great Falls airspace next week

Aircraft from multiple eras of aviation will converge over Great Falls later this month.

The 120th Airlift Wing of the Montana Air National Guard is hosting Flight over the Falls open house and airshow July 22-23 in conjunction with the 341st Missile Wing of Malmstrom Air Force Base.

The headlining act is the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, which have not performed in Great Falls since 2005.

The show will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Air Force and the Montana Air National Guard.

Col. Buel Dickson, 120th commander, said organizers are expecting 25,000 on July 22 and 20,000 on July 23.

“We’re really excited. It will be great for everybody in the community,” Dickson said.

The event is a joint effort between the 120th and Malmstrom, in partnership with the City of Great Falls, Cascade County, Great Falls International Airport and other local agencies to ensure the safety of spectators and performers.

Airmen, civilians and contractors from MANG, Malmstrom and the Army National Guard will be participating in the event. The Wings of Blue parajumping team will be jumping from MANG C-130s during the show, Dickson said.

Col. Ron Allen, 341st commander, said he’s excited to mark those anniversaries with the community and highlight the military missions.

Malmstrom also have static displays of their convoy vehicles and the Montana Army National Guard will have an M1A2 Abrams tank on display. UH-1N Huey helicopters from the 40th Helicopter Squadron at Malmstrom will be flying in search and rescue demonstrations.

Lt. Col. Josh Cinq-Mars of the 120th and Maj. Jeremiah Kirschman of the 341st are serving as co-directors of the event. Cinq-Mars commands the 120th Maintenance Squadron and Kirschman is the contracting squadron commander at Malmstrom.

Cinq-Mars has been planning the event since last June, and drawing on the knowledge of a colonel who planned the 2011 airshow at Malmstrom and is still a member of the 120th. Kirschman has been part of the planning team since November.

On Monday, the planning team did a tabletop exercise, running through five scenarios to test their response plans, Kirschman said. The group at the exercise included military officials, city and county emergency responders and officials, Great Falls Emergency Services and representatives from the hospitals.

During the event, officials will monitor the weather and make any necessary schedule changes to keep spectators and performers safe. They’ll also receive daily briefings from Great Falls hospitals on how many beds are available at local facilities and the plan on where patients will be sent should local facilities be full.

Medical personnel from Malmstrom will staff a medical tent and serve as roving medics to handle minor medical emergencies on site.

Members of the 219th and 819th RED HORSE squadrons are installing the mobile aircraft arresting system for the Thunderbirds. The F/A-18s can also use the system if they have any brake trouble.

It’s a catch wire that the jets can latch on to if needed in an emergency, similar to the line they catch on aircraft carriers.

The last time a plane crashed during an airshow in Montana was 2007 during a Malmstrom event.

The Canadian demonstration team, the Snowbirds, were practicing when one of their pilots fell out of his seat due to a faulty seatbelt while flying upside down and lost control of his plane, according to a Billings Gazette report.

In 1979 in Dillon, a flight training instructor for MANG was killed while piloting a F-106 Delta Dart during a Labor Day parade, according to a New York Times report. The plane made a low pass, crashed into a grain elevator and exploded, killing the pilot and setting fire to a bulk oil storage plant. According to the report, much of the city’s electrical grid was knocked out and at least either other people on the ground were injured.

Before that, the last airshow crash was in 1946 in Great Falls. Seven people were killed when two A-26 Invader bombers collided mid-air 750 feet in front of the grandstand during the North Montana State Fair, according to a report in the Spokane Daily Chronicle. One of the planes crashed into a horse barn, killing three crew members, three people on the ground and 20 horses. The other plane kept flying for a few miles before crashing in a field, killing one member of the crew, according to the news report.

RED HORSE airmen installed the same arresting system in 2014 for the Kalispell airshow that also featured the Thunderbirds, which fly F-16s.

The 120th flew models of the F-16 from the late 1980s through 2008, when they switched to F-15s and last year completed the conversion to the C-130.

The Thunderbirds last performed in Montana at the 2014 Kalispell show and in Helena in 2009. The Navy’s Blue Angels performed at the 2011 airshow at Malmstrom. The Thunderbirds are scheduled to arrive in Great Falls on July 17 and will be practicing in the area.

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Cinq-Mars, teamwork has been a lot of fun, working together “to be sure we have a safe event, that’s the focus, if we do that, we’ll have a great event.”

Airshows are often logistical feats and for the Great Falls show, more than 20 aircraft and performers are flying into an operational airport that shares the runway with the 120th’s military mission.

Cinq-Mars said the show has been coordinated with the air traffic control tower to avoid regular commercial flights.

For car enthusiasts, one act will feature a Lamborghini and Ferrari will race around runway.

“We have something for everybody,” Kirschman said.

The planning has “brought our agencies closer together,” Cinq-Mars said. “It’s definitely brought different functions of the base together that would not normally work together.”